Ever since Jerry Sandusky became a household name and rocked the national sports landscape, it also shined the spotlight on a chilling topic that all too often gets shoved to the side because it's too uncomfortable and unpleasant to talk about.
Welcome to today's child molester. They don't look menacing and lurk in the shadows; they're smart and skilled in their own twisted way. I know through personal experience, since my high school and college wrestling coaches were both suspected pedophiles. I experienced the issue, also, with suspicion when my son's coach who one day decided to drive my son home from practice and on the way stopped to buy him a new baseball glove.
Child sexual predators operate in the public eye at ball fields and gyms in everyone's community while harboring some of the most appalling motives and, most disturbing of all, they know how to connect with children.
Sadly, youth sports can be a haven for sexual predators. Just think about it. Here's a group of kids who, for the most part, are left alone by their parents with some person they barely know. According to our research, the average length of time a coach spends with practices and games throughout the season is roughly 80 hours. That leaves a lot of time for pedophiles to make their move.
I have always marveled at how the rules of many school systems don't seem to apply to the rules of those youth sports groups that use the same facilities. Let me explain.
In order to enter the elementary school that my children attended, you had to have a pass issued to you as you came in the door. This was obviously done to prevent the unwanted from entering the building. Yet around three in the afternoon on the fields out back of these same school grounds were hundreds of kids with their coaches. Nobody ever issued them a pass. They just showed up and spent the afternoon with their team. Granted, the overwhelming majority of kids' coaches are wonderful and caring people, but that doesn't mean a parent can relax.
Pedophiles can be your neighbor, your friend or a long time community member. They can be white or black; male or female; it doesn't matter. They are out there.
"They are often attractive, competent, charming and successful," says Dr. Bob Shoop, director of the Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership at Kansas State University. "They are very good at what they do; molesting children."
Child sexual predators use grooming techniques to gain the trust of not only their victims but even the child's unsuspecting parents. It's a horrific and methodical approach to gain access to children, abuse them for their own pleasure and then make sure that what happened is never repeated by their victim.
Combine children who are vulnerable and not able to reason effectively at this point in their young lives with parents who think abusive coaches only operate in other communities, and it becomes a gold mine of potential victims for the predator.
With more than 100,000 youth coaches annually as members of our organization, a crucial part of their training for the past 20 years involves protecting children from abuse and understanding the warning signals that a youngster may be suffering at the hands of an abusive adult.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. The math is startling. That's potentially three girls on a 15-player soccer team; or one boy on a youth football team.
I headed a youth sports organization early in my career and the words of one parent still rings in my ear when she said, "We would never have dreamed in a million years that he was a child abuser."
If you have a kid playing sports it becomes a little scary, right? Well, it was scary for me too. That's why I founded the National Alliance for Youth Sports -- www.nays.org -- where we train administrators, coaches and parents on how to look out for child predators.